Gender imbalances are a constant in our society. Albeit, there are fewer differences between the two genders – female and male – today than there have been in almost all of human history. The novel The Handmaid’s Tale, written by Margaret Atwood, is a piece of speculative fiction that focuses on the story of Offred, who is a handmaid. Through the lens of Offred found in an excerpt on page 88, the differences between gender are heightened to a state in which the children of today would not recognize, which is shown by the internal questioning displayed, and the reader gains insight of Offred’s internal struggles between wanting to rebel and wanting to survive as long as possible within the societal structure she lives in, as seen through the back and forth internal banter.
“She watches him from within. We’re all watching him. It’s the one thing we can really do, and it is not for nothing: if he were to falter, fail, or die, what would become of us? No wonder he’s like a boot, hard on the outside, giving shape to a pulp of tenderfoot. That’s just a wish. I’ve been watching him for some time and he’s given no evidence, of softness.
But watch out, Commander, I tell him in my head. I’ve got my eye on you. One false move and I’m dead.
Still, it must be hell, to be a man, like that.
It must be just fine.
It must be hell. It must be very silent.”
Page 88 of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.
One of the first societal problems amplified in this passage is the idea that women and a household are entirely reliant on men, and that without them, they would be unsure of what to do, which highlights a definite power imbalance between the two gender groups. The question Offred poses, “if he were to falter, fail, or die, what would become of us?” shows the reader that she has doubts over her own ability to care for her well being, as well the ability to provide for oneself for all the other women of the household. She, by questioning this, as well as saying “It’s the one thing we can really do, and it is not for nothing,” shows the reader the doubts she has with her own gender. She paints a picture of a society where the woman has her life in one sphere that is entirely held up by the sphere of men, or a man, who in this case is the Commander. She questions what would happen to her because in the time ‘before,’ women were at risk if they went out in public alone for assault. For her, as a handmaid, if the Commander died, she would probably move on to another Commander and simply change her name again. However, by not specifying only herself, and saying “become of us?”, she shows the compassion and sistership she feels with the Martha’s in the home, Nick, and Serena Joy, the wife of the Commander. It particularly shows her internal feelings towards Serena Joy by worrying about what would become of all of them. For the Martha’s, they would just be moved around. Nick, as a Guardian, would just change post. But Serena Joy, by serving only the role of a barren wife, would be the most at risk and have the most to lose. For Offred, this is a very compassionate way to think about Serena Joy, as a person to be worried about, because Serena Joy has not been very nice in other parts of the book to Offred.
Alongside the problem of the idea of reliance of one gender entirely on another, there comes the problem of an inherent power imbalance between the two genders. In the opening of the excerpt, “She watches him from within. We’re all watching him,” the language implies that they are watching the Commander for social cues. Offred starts by saying “she” watches him, which implies that because men are more powerful than women, women need to use the social cues of men in order to determine their own behavior. Offred then follows by saying “we’re all watching”, which implies that everyone in the household needs to follow the cues of the Commander, because he is the alpha in this situation, and all social cues need to be taken from him. The societal structure of The Handmaid’s Tale generally mimics the social structure of animals, such as wolves. First, there are “packs”, which are the households. There are “alpha” males, or the heads of household. Then, there’s a “beta” male, which in this case describes Nick. Then, the “alpha” male has his own harem of women, who in this case are Serena Joy, Cora, Rita, and Offred. These two sentences of the excerpt truly show both the power imbalances, and the hierarchical nature of the household. The power imbalance itself stems from the hierarchical nature of the household, and the hierarchical structure itself keeps women lower in status, and thus allows them less real power.
Finally, the internal dialogue at the end of the passage truly shows the struggle that Offred has with doing the right thing and doing what she would like. She goes back and forth between deciding if the Commander is suffering as much as she is, and goes back and forth between deciding that yes he is, or no, he couldn’t possibly be. A line before this internal argument, she says, “But watch out Commander, I tell him in my head. I’ve got my eye on you.” This sort of internal dialogue shows the reader that she, Offred, would like to tell the Commander off. She wants more power. But because she feels that she is powerless, Offred refrains from speaker her thoughts. These two complimentary internal struggles show the reader that Offred would like to rebel and do what she truly wants, but she is held down by her need to do what is right and her preoccupation with surviving.
Overall, Offred is a very confused character. Throughout the passage, the small cues she gives as to how she feels truly reflect to the reader how conflicted she is internally. Within the excerpt, the issue she and her society faces of women having to rely on me, of the power imbalances between the genders and different classes, and of her personal internal struggle with doing what she wants and rebelling, or being obedient and surviving, are amplified through Offred’s internal questioning and thoughts.